DHS Special Report | Communications are key to SBInet's success

The border of the future might not look very different from today, but there will be one major change'the way border security systems communicate.

While the Homeland Security Department seeks innovative surveillance solutions that can weather different climates and terrain, the Secure Border Initiative-Net procurement focuses on better informing and linking border patrol agents.

'Having all the data collected by the sensors isn't that good unless you can process it and pass it along to the operators in real time,' said Jim Lewis, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. 'My bet is that if it's still a few guys, a truck and a radar,' SBInet will be a failure.

'You need to move beyond that into some kind of Internet-style system,' he added.

DHS officials said improved communications is the key to SBInet's success.

'This is the industry partnership. They're just not looking at one slice of our operations, it is all across the board,' said Lee Bargerhuff, SBInet interim program director.

Border surveillance now consists of more than 200 cameras sending images back to border patrol stations, but the system is inconsistent at best and gives agents no analytical information to determine threats.

For SBInet to have any real impact, the system needs to mix the surveillance equipment with a real-time communications element that lets border patrol agents respond quickly to incursions.

'Practically speaking, communication helps everyone,' said Judy Marks, president of Lockheed Martin Corp.'s transportation and security solutions division. 'We want to be proactive, instead of reactive.'

Marks, like most other officials whose companies bid on the solicitation, including Raytheon Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp., would not disclose specific details about their proposals, citing sensitivity concerns. Nearly every executive interviewed stated that they expect the final SBInet package to range from high-tech, off-the-shelf innovations'such as unmanned ground and aerial surveillance, motion-sensitive sensors and cameras'to a basic, physical wall, depending on the geography.

The final product must be able to evolve and account for the diverse geographic conditions of the nation's land borders'from the hot desert of the Southwest to the damp chill of the Northeast.

'What the optimum mix is in New England, quite certainly, will not be the optimum mix in Southern California,' Bargerhuff said.

'I think there are a lot of smart people at DHS that have analyzed this and said, 'It's not simply about technology',' said Gene Blackwell, vice president of Raytheon's Rapid Initiative Group. 'There's all kinds of sensors, but it's how you communicate the sensor, put it into bite-sized portions for the [border patrol] agents ... so they are able to do their job.'

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